Most of us have read or even been a part of the indignation from music business veterans concerning the portrayal of life in the industry in the Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger/Terence Winter produced HBO series “Vinyl.” For the uninitiated, the drama is set in NYC in 1973, around the events at a struggling record label called American Century. I have been a part of the “that’s not the way I remember it” legion of mostly retired record people. I was so very fortunate to have spent the better part of my adult life as a record executive. However, rather than continuing the dialogue on what “Vinyl” is not, maybe it would be better to reflect on what it was… or at least what the business was in our eyes as young people pursuing our careers in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960’s. Maybe this will allow us to let “Vinyl” free to be what it is, a fictional 2016 entertainment series that intertwines fact and fantasy.
Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Kinky Friedman, members of the NY music media, and me. Photo credit: Mary Alfieri.
I didn’t officially come aboard at CBS Records until April of 1974, so maybe things changed in those few months between my experience and the 1973 setting of the “Vinyl” fantasy about the music industry. In addition, I didn’t transfer to New York to head national publicity for Epic Records until the middle of 1975.
However, let me share my reflections on those amazing years of the mid ‘70s and into the early 1980’s. It is, of course, impossible to condense those memories, emotions, and awe in a succinct blog post, but let me give it a shot.
Think about the tech world of today and perhaps of the last ten years. It’s a world of smart, hyper, inventive, and energized young professionals. Getting a job at CBS Records or Warner Brothers or any of the other majors of that era was like getting a cool job with Apple or Google today. Like getting into today’s start-up/tech industry, getting into the music industry was the ultimate career achievement.
By the time I landed in NYC, I was 25 years-old and just three years out of college. The Epic staff were my contemporaries. Most were in their twenties, and
many of those in senior management and the ‘veterans’ in the business were barely into their thirties. Ron Alexenburg, the brash young head of Epic was about 33 at the time, as was Steve Popovich, Epic’s storied and passionate head of A& R. Both had come up through the ranks as local radio promo people in Chicago and Cleveland respectively. They were blue collar guys, but they had largely stocked their staff with young, college-educated people, many of whom had risen from a college rep program that sought out the best and brightest. To be a CBS Records or Warner Brothers college rep was a transforming position, both in status and in establishing a bright career path.
We weren’t a small label like “Vinyl’s” American Century Records. Epic’s roster included Donovan, Sly & The Family Stone, and Labelle. We marketed and distributed the phenomenally hot Philadelphia International label whose roster included Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), The O’Jays (“Love Train”), and Lou Rawls, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and MFSB.
Our roster had many new and up and coming artists and recent signees, the likes of Boston, Dan Fogelberg, REO Speedwagon, Michael Murphy and Ted Nugent. We had country artists crossing over to pop, including Charlie Rich and Tammy Wynette. This was no small operation.
With that amazing roster (and there were many more!), Epic was still the step-child label at CBS Records. Our big sister label, Columbia Records, had Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Earth Wind & Fire, Chicago, Weather Report, Journey, and Johnny Cash.
As I recall, CBS Records was commanding, at times, as much as 30% of the music industry’s U.S. market share. Warner Brothers, with its array of label imprints – Warner, Elektra, Asylum – had, at times, an even larger market share. Then, there was MCA, RCA, Capitol, and Polygram, all taking their respective chunks of the industry.
The point is, that although there were still a number of indie labels that might fit the template that is portrayed in “Vinyl,” the music industry was a far bigger and mass market oriented business. It wasn’t one or two A&R guys with ears or one promo guy with a bag of money and drugs or one sales guy dumping returns into the ocean.
CBS Records had three pressing plants that operated 24/7. Santa Maria, California, Terre Haute, Indiana, and Pitman, NJ each had vibrant warehouses where loud stampers squeezed music into vinyl. Semi-tractor trailers rolled out to move millions of 30-count boxes of albums to tens of thousands of retail outlets.
The CBS Distribution operation had hundreds of sales reps in 21 offices throughout the U.S. Columbia and Epic each had dozens of local radio promo reps, field merchandisers went into retail stores to check inventories for our hits, and even re-stocked the shelves store-by-store to insure our music was positioned to beat the competition.
And why did the hits look so good? CBS Records had a Creative Service Department with some of the top graphic designers in the world. People like John Berg and Paula Scher and their people, won Grammies on a regular basis. The Production team made sure that the massively complicated schedule for clearing publishing credits, paying session musicians, and manufacturing was on time. We had advertising people, copywriters, and a photography department. We were on deadlines and we marketed products that had to be sold when they were fresh. These were the real areas of drama in the old record business, but not the ones a Scorsese or Jagger could fathom. Mick, a savvy music businessman, was just too far up the food chain to fully know how his albums all came together in the mass distribution phenomena that existed in those days.
However, there was more than just a massive distribution system and huge U.S. field staff. The major labels had grown internationally as well. We had offices in countries around the world. A New York based international department coordinated the flow of music, materials, and information to territories across the globe. Daily contact wasn’t just with the U.K. or Japan, but with offices in Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, and beyond.
And while this enormous machine worked, we had an aesthetic at CBS Records, Columbia, and Epic that was built upon taste, dignity, and honorable leadership. It began with founder William S. Paley. The legend was that he told the young minions at his record labels that he had “a license to print money.” And that license was real. He demanded that the record division not ever do anything to threaten the company’s most sacred asset, the FCC licenses for the CBS television and radio networks, and the affiliated stations across the country. We were the “Tiffany” company. We were to honor our assets.
After Mr. Paley, we had other giants to admire. Goddard Lieberson, as Chairman of CBS Records, was a revered Broadway angel who nurtured careers like Leonard Bernstein’s and brought life to “My Fair Lady” and “A Chorus Line.” His sophistication, dedication to the arts, and class permeated our several thousand company people around the globe with pride and purpose.
We worked for and with people who brought more of that integrity to our daily lives. Bruce Lundvall’s commitment and love for jazz artists and his vision for excellence, no matter the commercial outcome, spawned success anyway, with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. He was another company leader who was easy to approach, had the ultimate sense of humor, and made you proud to be a part of his company.
I think back to the CBS Records Conventions, when the day started with product presentations at 8 AM and concluded just in time for us to do a quick change of clothes for a dinner show that might include Bill Withers, The Beach Boys, and The Charlie Daniels Band, all on the same stage in one evening. It might have ended at 1 AM, but no one went to sleep! We ended up in the hotel suites where you might come across a jam session that included Epic’s head of marketing, Jim Tyrell on bass, with senior sales exec, Stan Snider on keys, with Marlena Shaw singing! As a young person new to the company I was in awe to see these music business people engaging legends in late night music making.
My memories include early mornings in my office a couple of times each week, when a rumpled, older man with a big smile and a silvery flat-top would amble into my office. With a cup of coffee in hand, John Hammond would share his concerns about an artist getting their due, while thrilling me with slivers of stories about discovering and signing a stunning list of artists, including Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. An unassuming man, who was a civil rights leader, and just happened to be an heir to the Vanderbilt clan.
Oh, we drank and partied and ran around the country with our American Express cards. Drugs really didn’t find their way to record industry suites to a large degree, until at least the late ‘70s, as I recall, in any high profile way. We were out to see our acts perform virtually every night, as in those days if an act was performing in NYC, you went. It was pretty much mandatory. I was afraid to go to sleep. I might miss something big!
Our first job was always to get the company fired up about an act. The prevailing belief was that if we were all on-board with an artist, no one could stop us. That’s how a Bruce Springsteen happened. A group of hundreds of people who would not let his talent go unrewarded. I remember branch offices challenging other branch offices to who was going to do more to explode an up-and-coming artist. We loved our artists and we loved what we could collectively do to make them happen. The pride in that belief in our own power as a group was pervasive. This is what so many of us remember with such heartfelt emotion.
Somehow these memories don’t seem to equate to “Vinyl.” That story seems so small and dirty to me. Oh, we had our seamy side. There is no doubt that money changed hands. There’s no doubt there was sex and drugs. However, we know those things exist in every business. I believe for us veterans of the music industry, we are just so tired of hearing only that side about our business.
“Vinyl” is entertainment. It’s not necessarily true. It’s based on elements of truth. Most people don’t even care if it is true. Give us some good plot twists, a murder, some sex, and good music, and we are entertained.
And I was entertained for many years by working with larger than life personalities, endless pressures, and the countless popular successes that I shared with the many, many colleagues from the music business. Mick Jagger doesn’t necessarily know of most of those people or what they do or what they might have meant to his success. I do. They mean as much to me as the superstars we helped build. And I can only touch on a fraction of what our world was like.
So enjoy “Vinyl” for what it is. I’m going to enjoy my memories of a vibrant, hopeful, can-do business for what it truly was…
15 thoughts on “Vinyl Response”
Excellent thought provoking article Dan…Job well done…
Looks like you’ve gotten the first Chapter of “the book” already written, Dan!
While I came on board a handful of years later than you, and into the Columbia (not Epic) fold, this is nevertheless a great memory jog from my early days at CBS Records.
Looking forward to Chapter 2!
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Great observations, Dan. A transformative time with the transformative label. Music was and arguably still is the fastest changing consumer product in the world – informing wider culture – art, fashion, dance, film, theatre and literature in a way that no other product ever could. Our CBS generation contibuted massively in its own elegant, enthusiastic way to the legacy.
Thank you for this. You really captured our world at that time. It was truly inspirational, driven by love of great music before anything else. I used to come to work beginning at age 24, write marketing plans for Bruce Springsteen, Peter Tosh, Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd and think I must be the luckiest man on earth.
I worked for A&M at pretty much the same time. Perhaps you knew my old girlfriend at CBS, Gayle Compton. She was in Boston then NYC as promo rep. Thanks for your comments. I fell pretty much the same way. Even though ours were heady times, a story closer to our experience would not be considered sensational enough today.
You nailed it right on the head Dan. Those were increditble times with incredible people. I remember all those events you mentioned because I was a part of it too. By the way I don’t think I slept at all during the 70’s!!!
Another excellent read Dan! Ted would have loved what you are writing, and I’m really enjoying it. Look forward to the next one!
Sent from Me! Through the Air…⛅️
Thank you for your. Thoughts on Vinyl. I haven’t watched yet but evetually binge watch. I entered radio in 1977 and worked in rock radio until 1993 and was the PD of two legedary alternative stations. I played CBGB’S and Maxwell’s. I switched professions and I became a computer programmer. Sadly I fell a lot at work and I ended up out of a job. As it turns out I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis so I would love to work on the radio again because my pipes still sound great. I never attack the creative work of others. I was just in a play in which the entire ensemble was disabled except for one actor. It is the too cool for school set that tend to find fault instead of creating. Hilly would have loved the show and I am sure I will. Thanks for your sane view, Dan
I really like this post. It depicts – largely – the real working record business that many of us actually knew. Just a couple of points, about your unique perspective on the drugs and other debauchery.
“Drugs really didn’t find their way to record industry suites to a large degree, until at least the late ‘70s, as I recall, in any high profile way.”
I’m not sure if all of those equivocating words “to a large degree,” “as I recall,” “in any high profile way” are your way of nodding to the point without explicitly acknowledging it. The sheer number of non-committal phrases in such a short, direct sentence seems to indicate that’s wht you are trying to do. In any event, even if YOU didn’t witness it “to a large degree” or “in any high profile way,” the fact remains that, as many who were there have stated, drug use – even within the executive offices – was a pretty regular thing, throughout the ’70s.
Similarly, you offer that “Oh, we had our seamy side. There is no doubt that money changed hands. There’s no doubt there was sex and drugs. However, we know those things exist in every business. I believe for us veterans of the music industry, we are just so tired of hearing only that side about our business.”
It is true that no one could or should deny that sex, drugs and corruption exist in other businesses. But again, I think the reason the music business is particularly known for those things is entirely valid. The use of those items and tactics was grander, an importantly, much more open and accepted as “business as usual,” within the record business than it was in other businesses.
I just don’t think you need to overly-romanticize the hard work that was being done (and it was being done), by going to great lengths to minimize those other elements of the business.
It was what it was – good and bad. All of it.
Hi Dan. I really enjoyed your post about how it really was at CBS/Sony. I worked at the Dallas Branch for 30 years and enjoyed it all. I felt very fortunate to be a part of that branch and CBS & Sony Music. Looking forward to your future posts.
Thanks Dan. Your writing is excellent, I felt my first convention excitement while I was reading. I was hired in Feb of 1984 and 2 weeks later was on a plane to Hawaii… a young kid from a town of 800 people in Minnesota. I worked my way through college at record stores and was taking a break between undergrad and grad school. I was given a job with WEA in 1978 and never pursued by graduated studies. The convention in Hawaii was so overwhelming to me. The live performances … I would love to have a list of all the performers. Stevie Ray, Cyndi Lauper, Teena Marie …was it Carly Simon who joined them? All of it so amazing it felt like a dream to me. And then to hear Walter say “we’re coming back next year”! Poor Roz! You are a bright star in my past and I’m certain to all who know you. I also remember speaking with you at one of the Hawaii conventions and was so amazed that Michael Jackson’s product manager would speak to a new field merchandiser with respect and interest in me! We also talked about your Mulligan cards. You made me feel valuable. Sometimes as a merchandiser that was a feeling hard to come by! So thank you again for your writing and for your positive influence in my life. All the best! Jeni Bengtson
Hey Dan, Many thanks for telling it like it was. Although I worked with you at CBS for just a few years in the early 80’s, I had previously, and for many additional years, continued to work closely with the Epic/Columbia/Portrait and Associated labels. As a publisher, I had forged close relationships, friendships, with many in A&R, marketing, promotion, creative services, etc. It truly was a time when we were all in the “club” together. Where every day was a new adventure, and our collective love of music and musicians kept us engaged at the deepest level. The hours we put in were of little concern because we often felt like there was nothing else we’d rather be doing with our time. The excitement of helping to discover and/or develop the careers of artists we believed in was better than anything we could have ever dreamed of. The fact that we also got paid for our work, in money and perks, was practically an incidental extra bonus. Vinyl has it wrong in the context of what an average day in music executives’ lives were like, but I admit I am enjoying watching it. Perhaps without the sensationalism, what was really happening would seem mundane and not make for an entertaining hour of once a week television. Loved reading your post! Hope all is well, and hope to see you sometime soon.
What a great read, Dan. Your description brought me back to those days, and as Amy said it was “a great memory jog” from my time at Columbia Records. Thanks for this post.
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So glad I came across this article. Great read Dan. Though I didn’t start to work at Columbia till the late 80’s, I share your sentiments. So many larger than life characters, and I’m talking about the record company staff…
I absolutely loved going to work every day. and we all worked hard and long hours. We all had the fire in us; passion.
It was such an exciting time of my life.
Thank you for sharing your stories. This is another one that I really enjoyed reading. I watched the first episode of “Vinyl” and part of the second one before I decided I didn’t care for the show. Just not my cup of tea.
You’ve had some amazing times in your career and I am very proud of your accomplishments and to hear your stories. I hope you keep posting them. I find them very interesting and this is part of history that needs to be told by the people who lived it.
Dan I would hear dribs and drabs of what you were doing but never really had an idea of the full scope of your work. I would much rather hear yours and others stories about the music industry from that period than what I saw while watching “Vinyl”. Keep posting your blog I really enjoy it as well as the comments readers make!
Take care and keep on sharing your stories Dan.